By Donella Meadows
–January 28, 1988–
Scientific advances have a way of changing the world sneakily, while we’re all off paying attention to something else.
When the first paper on radioactive chain reactions appeared quietly in a German journal in the 1930s, no one could have foreseen the resulting energy systems, the weapons, the trillion-dollar expenditures, the lives lived in terror and lives lost.
When Watson and Crick put forth their theory of the structure of the genetic material called DNA, biologists knew it was a tremendous advance. But even they could not have imagined the biotech industries, the mass-produced insulin, the bovine growth hormone, the boons to health, the dangers to the environment, the thrills in the stock market that would flow from that breakthrough.
And now come discoveries in the field of human genetics that may produce the most devastating possible blow to our present way of life. They may make political campaigns obsolete.
Science magazine summed up the findings in its issue of 7 August 1987. The article begins by recounting the amazing similarities in identical twins raised apart. They are alike not only in appearance but in personality and preferences. Identical twins Oskar Stohr, raised a German Catholic, and Jack Yufe, raised a Jew in Trinidad, arrived to participate in a study at the University of Minnesota and discovered they were both wearing blue, double-breasted, epauletted shirts, mustaches, and wire-rimmed glasses. They both had quick tempers. They both enjoyed surprising people by sneezing in elevators.
The studies have now been extended to cover not only identical twins raised together (same heredity, same environment) and apart (same heredity, different environment) but also biological and adopted children raised together (different heredity, same environment). The studies show not only how important heredity is, but how surprisingly unimportant environment is.
In the words of one investigator, “shared family life tends to make biologically unrelated individuals a little bit alike, but it is a very little bit indeed”.
Genetics determine not only the traits we’ve come to admit we have little control over — activity level, alcoholism, intelligence, psychosis, sexuality — but also the ones we like to take credit for — altruism, aggression, extraversion, sociability, values, and political attitudes. Yes, political attitudes. The scientists have established that your opinion about the death penalty or disarmament has much more to do with your genes than with your upbringing. If your kids have grieved you by turning into wild-eyed radicals or uptight conservatives, it’s not because of what you or anyone else taught them. It’s because of the DNA that you and one other person gave them.
Among the most strongly inherited traits are traditionalism and conservative political and social attitudes. Those poor, benighted, ultra-right-wingers were born that way and can’t be helped. Unfortunately, the same can be said of us enlightened and thoughtful liberals. We are prisoners of our genetic material. We were programmed at that magic moment of conception to become followers of Lyndon Larouche or admirers of Ronald Reagan or campaign workers for Paul Simon.
Think how the world would change if we actually come to believe these findings. We could stop trying to change each others’ minds. It can’t be done, no matter how much we persuade or yell at each other. (Decades of experience should have prepared me for this, but somehow I hadn’t really absorbed the message.) We needn’t go out of our way to protect our childrens’ malleable minds from alien political ideas; their minds aren’t malleable. Newspaper editorials and even — my gosh! — opinion columns need not be written. Campaign speeches have no effect. We can save those millions of dollars worth of political ads.
If democracy has any future in this Brave New World, I suppose it could work simply by registering each person’s genetic makeup when he or she reaches voting age (any cell from your body will provide the necessary information), and then finding which candidate is most genetically congenial with a majority of the population. It could all be done by computer.
Am I serious? Well, halfway. The science here is serious. The evidence about the power of inheritance is convincing, not only because there’s a lot of evidence, but because the investigators don’t want to believe it any more than the rest of us do. The Science article depicts their surprise and their reluctance to draw conclusions. “It was not what we expected to find,” says one. But when nature gives a consistent message, scientists eventually accept it, and it is all the more credible because of their initial doubts.
If we all accepted that we have political opinions the same way we have blue eyes or straight hair — by inheritance — that would release a tremendous amount of energy now expended on efforts to make everyone think alike. But it would require even more energy to design and maintain political systems that allow us to think differently but still live together peaceably and make decisions together wisely.
Copyright Sustainability Institute 1988